Who knew Estonia was such a WiFi paradise? And who knew that also meant finding a computer to use or an Internet cafe was so difficult? Suddenly I am rethinking my minimalist packing ideology that excludes all electronics beyond a camera. Maybe it’s time to buy a laptop. So how to sum up a week in Estonia after a so long off the Internet grid? I’ll try my best. I looked back at my first post, in the hazy 24 hours of my first day in Tallinn, and realize I was more jet lagged than usual – I may even have some historical mistakes (dates, etc) to correct when I have time (my apologies to all my history professors.) Oh, well! I left Tallinn reluctantly, but content. It’s a compact Old Town, enmeshed in a warren of cobblestoned medieval streets that’s packed with tourists, yes, but also plenty of locals. Young Estonians drinking the local beer A Le Coq in the little park by my hostel (drinking open containers in public parks is totally legit here.) The best restaurants of ethnic cuisine and contemporary Estonian booked up from 7pm on, making my mantra of following the locals for dinner an exercise in eating much too early and then fortifying myself later at a cozy cafe in a vaulted medieval den to the flicker of candlelight. I prefer to mingle with locals, as fun as the touristy sights of castle towers, soaring Gothic church towers, and flamebreathing minstrels are. So Sunday I headed to the harbor for Tallinn’s annual 3 day Harbor Days festival. Not a tourist in sight. Families pushing strollers, children clinging joyous balloons, and smoking food carts wafting tantilizing smells to entice me to part with my euros. Which I did, heartily, for a fire smoked salmon steak, so juicy I can safely say salmon can actually melt in your mouth. Only 2 euros for the fish and a heaping pile of vegetables.
All sorts of ships lined the harbor piers, open and free to the public. As the live bands, everything from polka to rock to folk music, serenaded my footsteps, I scrambled up gangplanks, through portholes, and down into the bowels of some classic old ships. A steam-powered ferry. A sailing ship in full rigging. An Arctic ice-breaker. I laughed with fresh-faced young Estonian sailors as the Estonian navy hosted the public. The highlight for this history buff? Ducking into a 1937 sub called the Lembit, an Estonian vessel incorporated into the Soviet Navy in WW2 when the Soviets first took over Estonia under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Estonia is full of crumbling relics of the past, grim reminders of her suffering under the Soviets. In the aftermath of WW2, Estonia was included in the USSR, a full-fledged part of the Soviet Union, much to the chagrin of the local people. Many Estonians, young and old, even children, were deported to Siberia, others were imprisoned or killed. I toured the local prison in Tallinn, the beachside Patarei Prison, which last saw an execution in 1991. When the prison was closed, the wardens just walked away, leaving evrything from furniture to books behind. Today it is a rotting, crumbling mess, a museum left as is. I walked through the yard’s tiny boxes of brick and caged wire, guarded by a tower and catwalk. Shivered in the plain little room with the hole chopped in the floor, where hangings occurred. Peeked into cells, mattresses exploding, a puzzle melting into the dust of the floor, an imprisoned artist’s fantastic mural of knights and a naked woman on the wall. In the library, books in Russian fluttered in the wind, dusty and faded and warped. In the operation room, medical equipment still sat ready for use, a bloody vial on the table. It was as if everyone suddenly disappeared mid-living. I left disturbed.
Just outside Tallinn is Lahemaa National Park, which exists mostly undeveloped strangely because of the Soviets. The Soviets established numerous top secret naval bases here, so even local Estonians were not allowed in unless they had a home there and even then with restricted access. As a result, the forested, boggy land and tiny fishing villages were never developed. We went on hikes through damp birch forests, the ground a carpet of soft moss, picking wild strawberries, the cranberries and cloudberries still too green to try. Stepped carefully on rotting wood planked paths through a mire, or bog, an ethereal realm of stunted, twisted trees, rainbows of moss in reds, yellows, and greens, the scattered lakes still mirrors of light and sky. At the seaside house of Arlun, a respected fish-smoker on the coast, we braved a lashing rain to check out his tiny, totally sea-worthy replica of a Viking ship, then feasted on his smoked salmon as his dogs begged for scraps at our heels. A detour from all the natural wonder was a once top secret Soviet sub base, gloomy and ominous in the gray gloom of the storm. We stepped carefully over broken glass and fragments of computers, gazing at walls covered in old Communist idealistic slogans and murals, collaged with modern-day graffiti.
I’ve just returned from a retreat onto an idyllic island on the Baltic Sea. Hiiumaa is tiny, rural, and mostly a destination for Estonians escaping the city. I lodged at Allika hostel, once the servant’s quarters for the local baron’s manor, now a guesthouse and the home of Meeli’s extended family, her grandchildren running across the old wood floors and chasing butterflies in the rose gardens. I spent two days killing my knees by biking all over the island: bird wetlands, glacial erratic stones, rock-laden beaches, dense forests, bombed out Gothic churches (due to a crashed German fighter in WW2), a wind-scoured lighthouse, and old WW2 bunkers melding into the forest floor, once the site of a furious battle between the Germans and Soviets. I was reluctant to leave, but onwards I go.
I like the Estonians. I find them quiet, but quick to smile. The women sweet and modest, with musical laughter, the men of few words, but always a teasing glint in the eye. My new acquaintance Kaur told me an old joke about Estonian men: An old married couple was watching a SPanish soap opera, and the male actor was saying all sorts of romantic sweet nothings to the woman. The Estonian wife asked her husband, “Why don’t you ever tell me that?” The husband replied, “Damn it, woman, I told you that 40 years ago at the altar!” In other words, Estonian men mean what they say and only feel they need to say it once.
Now off into the old medieval university city of Tartu.